Where did Selah Saterstrom find the document The Confederate Ball Program Guide, 1938? Is it a pamphlet? A booklet? Is it illustrated? Well-worn? Letter pressed? What typeface was used? What about the design?
Was this document part of her family papers? Something she found tucked in a shoebox in her grandmother’s closet? Was the text found in an antique store, flea market or secondhand bookstore? Was the text given to her as a present? Did Saterstrom imagine it would incite the stories in The Pink Institution?
The evocative title ignites the reader’s curiosity. When using found texts as inspiration, the writer proceeds in the mode of an archeologist or anthropologist. A new kind of transaction occurs between the triggering text and author.
Found texts move writers into unexpected territory. In this instance, The Confederate Ball Program Guide, 1938 provides a scaffold for telling dark family secrets. It allows her to focus on the power struggle of being a teenage bride, alcoholism, and generational domestic abuse.
The program guide instructs partygoers to enact several tableaux. A tableau is a group of models or motionless figures representing a scene from a story or history. The tableaux to be enacted at Confederate Ball serves as a how-to guide of the expectations of Southern belles and debutantes. Saterstrom uses each tableau as a method to unfold stories of family violence and heartbreak.
Four sections of The Confederate Ball Program Guide, 1938 allow Saterstrom to tell of historically entrenched patriarchy and illuminate the parlors of families holding social events to celebrate for the glory days of the Civil War long after the South’s defeat.
Saterstrom uses the general introduction in the program guide and three separate tableaux to be re-enacted at the ball to jumpstart her narrative. When a culture is defeated in war, the family institution is a spoil of war and a battlefield where disappointment and defeat are reacted. Tableau: Family Prayers, Tableau: Falling In Love, Tableau: The King and Queen of Court are used as epigrams and introductions to a woman’s place as a second-class citizen. The outcome of this kind of captivity is no longer secret as Saterstrom gives silenced women voice.
Using the procedure of tableau, each story is given a historic epigram and forum. Satherstrom uses the general introduction of The Confederate Ball Program Guide, 1938 to introduce a people who ”truly ‘live in the past’ with Beau Repose. The Confederate Ball so—the days of the old South that is has become likened to the Passion and has become famous as old houses.” The sentence and sentiment is fragmented by “text smears” as there is wear on the paper, but the missing, unreadable words form their own connectivity and mystery.
Tableau: Family Prayers relates the story of a mother humiliating her daughter and the reader guesses such exchanges must be a common occurrence. The words are splashed across the page in a hesitant fashion, and the young girl is told her hair like a “rat’s nest” , a scary declaration. Saterstrom subverts the tradition of tableaux and fancy ball to reveal the dark side in the parlors of houses in need of restoration. This is just the first installment as we enter the secret lives of families in the South.
Using this found text allows Saterstrom to travel back in time to the Civil War, and into the future as she tells of the contemporary South filled with poverty, abuse and violence. Read her book to find out what happens to four generations of Southern women still living in the shadow of the Confederacy.
Be open to use found texts as inspiration, as guides to new territory, and to help open up creative spaces for new writing. Be on the look out as writers never know where the muse will strike. How can you use your newfound treasure? Maybe you will find inspiration in the table of contents, the illustrations, the syntax, a whole new vocabulary or an unknown body of knowledge. Let found text spark new work and follow the text to where takes you as a writer.
Selah Saterstrom is the author of the novels The Pink Institution,The Meat and Spirit Plan and forthcoming, Slab, all published by Coffee House Press. She is also the author of Tiger Goes to the Dogs, a limited edition letterpress project published by Nor By Press. Her prose, poetry, and interviews can be found in publications such as The Black Warrior Review, Postroad, Tarpaulin Sky, Fourteen Hills,and other places. She is the director of the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Denver and teaches and lectures throughout the United States.